Police Psychology | How Policing Can Be Improved with Science

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Rank and Leadership
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Police Psychology | How Policing Can Be Improved with Science

 Marcus Clarke is the author of psysci.co a psychology blog that examines the latest research and explains findings in simple terms.

Police forces around the world face increasing pressure, from cuts to funding to new forms of crime, so ensuring policing standards are maintained and crime rates reduced can be difficult. But one resource that police stakeholder’s often underutilize is science.

Police departments have a tendency to resist lessons from science and nobody really knows why, a general cynicism that science can’t provide the answers may be the problem or it may seem like a personal insult that police departments can’t improve things by themselves. But the truth is that science for all its complexities, when broken down to its basic is a simply evidence based trial and error that can be utilized in by an industry, sector or establishment to provide iterative improvements.

Police Psychology | So how can science help with the small policing stuff?

A large part of a police officers job is to de-escalate situations, while this is unarguably a skill that is built up over time and with experience, even the most proficient police officer can say or do the wrong thing in a highly stressed situation. Police officers are almost universally trained how to introduce themselves in different situations but as police dashboard cams have revealed time again that a standardized approach is rarely implemented and that this one factor alone can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of a situation.

By collating large data sets such interactions from police dashboard cams, other video evidence or police logs there is a multitude of ways that science could examine, analyze and provide theories of how interactions may be improved upon to help diffuse situations more effectively.

“There’s no systematic incorporation of research” – Charlotte Gill

Large scale police systems based on data sets are not a new concept, in fact systems such as computerized early warnings systems that are supposed to alert police departments about individual police officers who may overreact violently during stressful situations have actually been in place for decades. So how effectively are these systems? Somewhat effective, but in truth they are lacking something, a solid scientific base.

And earlier this year that was finally acknowledge by President Obama who announced a police data initiative. This police data initiative aims to properly implement scientific knowledge into policing, or as stated at the time fill this gap via a research program to study the efficacy of law enforcement, which in fact quite an admission of the lack of scientific knowledge that is presently used to inform police practices.

Police Psychology | How can science help with the big policing decisions?

The US alone has spent $14 billion on community policing initiatives in a single year, but what is the evidence that community policing actually cuts crime? While community policing may appease the public and alleviate fears with a visible reminder of law enforcement increases, as more police officers are seen around the streets, a recent meta-analysis that combined 65 individual studies actually revealed that there was no clear evidence that community policing initiatives actually reduce crime.

The authors of the meta-analysis highlighted several difficulties in even trying to provide a review of community policing research, one of the main reasons for this was the wide range of definitions of community policing, without being able to directly compare community policing strategies discussing effectiveness proved difficult. The authors highlighted the need for further research as well as theory development around community policing in order to fully (and scientifically) recommend how a particular community policing strategy may be effective.

But with the launch of the police data initiative police departments such as California and Texas actively share information with data scientists such as statistics relating to the use of force, vehicle and pedestrian stops. Which is actually a huge step forward, as this type of information is generally not shared with third parties. While the current initiative is more concerned with incidents related to civilian death it is nonetheless an extremely positive step forward.

So while science alone is unlikely to be a policing panacea as there are so many variables involved it is very likely that any new reforms would benefit from empirical evidence, that can be achieved when police departments and researchers open up their doors to each other and collaborate for the greater good.

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